A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – Redemption and Creation in Kuyper

Read the first seven posts here, here, here, here, here, here,and here.

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In our last blog post, we presented some of the core beliefs regarding Abraham Kuyper’s public theology, which can be summed up in one sentence: Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and because of that fact, our allegiance to Him should shape not only the private but also the public aspects of our lives. In Kuyper’s vision, Christ is not just the Lord over ecclesiastical matters, but He is also Lord over public matters like art, science, business, politics, economics, and education. Based on this core conviction, Kuyper served as prime minister of the Netherlands, founded a Christian university, started a newspaper, and wrote influential books on theology, politics, and other topics. In recent years a new generation of Calvinists has further developed Kuyper’s original vision of Christ’s lordship over all matters. To understand these recent developments, we must understand neo-Kuyperian theology concerning the relationship between redemptive grace and creation.

Creation and Redemption

In the neo-Kuyperian theological vision, redemptive grace both renews and restores nature. In this vision, God covenanted creation (“nature”) into existence and ordered it by means of His word. At creation, God instructed his image bearers to be fruitful and multiply (interpreted as a social command), till the soil (interpreted as a cultural command), and have dominion (interpreted as a regal command). His image bearers would glorify him by multiplying worshipers, bringing out the hidden potentials of creation, and lovingly managing his world. However, Adam and Eve were seduced by the word that the serpent spoke against God’s word. Since the first couple’s sin, all of humanity has been under the sway of sin.

This original sin can be interpreted as the antithesis to God’s covenant Word. However, more generally, the antithesis is any word spoken against God’s word. It misdirects the human mind and affections by pointing them toward idols rather than toward the one true and living God. So this world is corrupted, but it is not corrupted in its structures, but only in its direction. Consider the words of Bruce Ashford as an explanation of this point:

In other words, sin and evil were not able to corrupt God’s created order structurally or ontologically. Satan and sin are not as powerful as God’s word and therefore cannot destroy creation. They cannot make purely bad what God created originally good. All they can do is misdirect. Thus creation remains good structurally (in its existence and basic order) but has been made bad directionally (as humanity brings out the hidden potentials of creation by building society and culture, but does so in an errant manner, directing it toward idols rather than God).

For these reasons, God sent his Son to restore nature. The salvation provided by the Son is offered to God’s image bearers, but extends beyond them to the whole creation. According to an interpretation of Romans 8:19-22, Christ will liberate creation from the bondage it is now experiencing because of the Fall. One day, He will return to renew and restore his good creation, purifying it of corruption and misdirection, and placing in its midst a majestic city – the New Jerusalem (cf. Revelation 21:1). This New Jerusalem is not simply a heavenly city, but it is thoroughly cultural, characterized by architecture, art, and music. Thus, the metanarrative of Scripture (creation-fall-redemption-consummation) applies not just to the individual Christian, but it appeals to all of creation.

Cosmic Redemption

This view of cosmic redemption has two broad implications in this vision. First, since God will liberate creation from its bondage—rather than annihilating it— this affirms that sin did not have the power to corrupt creation ontologically. The created order, even though it has been misdirected, remains God’s good creation. He will renew it and restore it, instead of replacing it.

Second, in this vision, our eternity unfolds in our present universe. This affirms the enduring goodness of the physical and material (i.e. cultural) aspects of our lives. In this vision, God’s redemptive grace is not opposed to nature in that God will completely replace this world with another world. Rather, God accomplishes cosmic redemption by renewing and restoring nature – making it what He always intended it to be. Consider the words of Abraham Kuyper:

For if grace exclusively concerned atonement for sin and salvation of souls, one could view grace as something located and operating outside of nature….But if it is true that Christ our Savior has to do not only with our soul but also with our body…then of course everything is different. We see immediately that grace is inseparably connected with nature, that grace and nature belong together. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, 173.

Redirecting the Culture

This vision presents a distinctive view of the way a Christian should live in the world. In this vision, believers are called to be transformative or redirective in our social and cultural activities. Within every single vocation that God calls believers, we desire God’s Word to shape our words and activities. Hence, believers inquire about God’s original creational design for a certain activity, then discern the manifold ways it has been misdirected by sin, and finally find ways to redirect that activity or realm towards Christ.

This is done out of love for Christ and our neighbor, as a matter of obedience, and a matter of witness. Since Christ’s lordship extends to all of creation, then it must extend to all cultural activities. Thus, Christ’s saving Lordship should be conveyed not only by our words but by our cultural deeds. And we do so as a preview of Christ’s coming Kingdom, when he will renew this heavens and earth. God’s redemption and restoration transforms us in the totality of our being, across the entire fabric of our lives, and redirects our lives comprehensively. Kuyper writes,

In short, everything is his. His kingdom is over everything….His kingdom is a kingdom of all ages, of all spheres, of all creatures. On Kuyper, 147-148.

Thus every act of obedience—whether in prayer or in politics, in evangelism or in economics—is a part of Christian mission, a manifestation of kingdom work. Because the antithesis is operative as a misdirecting agent in every part of creation and culture, we should draw upon God’s thesis (i.e. God’s word) to redirect all activities in our lives.

Redirecting Public Theology

Most importantly for the sake of our discussion, this vision has a distinctive view of public theology. If God’s sovereign authority holds for every sphere of life and if his word is relevant to every sphere, then politics and the public square are no exception. Kuyper exemplified this conviction in his own life. He drew upon the “grace restores nature” framework in order to shape his understanding of politics and the public square.

First, this vision has a distinctive view of how a Christian should do academic scholarship. It views every academic discipline as an opportunity to view God’s world through the lens of his Word. Kuyper writes,

He who lives from, and consistently within, the orbit of Revelation confesses that all Sovereignty rests in God and can therefore proceed only from Him; that the Sovereignty of God has been conferred absolute and undivided upon the man-Messiah; and that…every…sphere of life recognizes an authority derived from him. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, 468.

A Christian scholar who believes that redemptive grace restores nature will recognize that his field of study, has an authority derived from Christ. His discipline operates within a sphere that has a unique God-given principle at its core, shaping the discipline’s goal as well as its appropriate parameters. It is within this framework that Christian higher education can thrive.

Second, this vision strongly encourages believers to approach any aspect of public life by discerning God’s creational design for that aspect (thesis), discerning the various ways in which these aspects have been corrupted and misdirected by sin (antithesis), and working to redirect them toward Christ. Similar to the views of Luther and Calvin, our engagement in the public sphere cannot and should not be done in reliance upon general revelation alone. Christians should allow our specifically Christian beliefs and commitments to inform our views on social, cultural, and political issues.

Third, this vision causes us to avoid an improperly coercive relationship between church and state. Kuyper’s answer to the church-state relationship was the sphere sovereignty concept discussed in our last post. Kuyper argued that God ordered creation in such a way that there are multiple spheres (such as art, science, religion, and politics). God is sovereign over the spheres and each sphere exists directly under God’s authority (rather than under the church’s authority).

Fourth, this vision makes a distinction between the institutional church and the organic church, and applies that distinction to public square activities. The church, as an institution, gathers weekly to preach the word and to administer the sacraments. However, the church is also an organism – a covenantal body of believers who scatter throughout society and culture during the week. While the institutional church may have indirect influence on politics and the public square by shaping its members into Christian disciples, it should not exert direct influence. However, the organic church—the covenanted members of the church—may exercise direct influence in politics and the public square, by applying their discipleship to public matters when opportunity arises and expertise allows.

Conclusion

Much more could be said here, but the “grace restores nature” framework provides the theological foundation for discussion Kuyper’s (and neo-Kuyperian) public theology. There are many who interpret this vision as “redeeming the culture” or “transforming the culture”. However, this would be a mischaracterization of the views of many neo-Kuyperians. Many neo-Kuyperians understand that any cultural transformation will be neither comprehensive nor enduring, until the day when Christ Jesus transforms the world. All of these activities are done out of love for Christ and our neighbor, as a matter of witness and obedience, and in the hopes that the Christian community can provide a preview of Christ’s coming kingdom. Kuyper applied this vision in a very helpful way to politics and the public square. He emphasized God’s sovereignty over every sphere of culture, including church and state. He provided a way for church and state to relate to one another properly, without one domineering the other. He sought to avoid the twin extremes of a naked square on the one hand, or a theocracy on the other. Kuyper grasped one great truth—that Christ’s lordship is universal—and sought to apply it wisely and consistently to life on this earth. And from that we can all benefit.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – Sphere Sovereignty in Kuyper

Read the first six posts here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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In our discussion of a Reformed Baptist perspective on public theology, we have recently been examining the Reformed confessions. In today’s article, we will begin our discussion of some more recent developments regarding Reformed perspectives of public theology. In our view, no modern discussion on Reformed public theology can be presented without discussing the contributions of Abraham Kuyper. By becoming familiar with Kuyper’s approach to public theology, readers should be in a position to evaluate the politics of writers like Francis Schaeffer, Tim LaHaye (and many of the members of the Christian Right movement), and Tim Keller – all of whom owe an intellectual debt to Kuyper.

As a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church and a leader in the first modern Dutch political party, the Anti-Revolutionary Party, Kuyper sought to re-create a Christian perspective on politics and society that would form the basis for Christian social action. He envisaged this as an integral part of a comprehensive Christian worldview based upon the Scriptures and their interpretation within the Augustinian-Calvinist tradition. Although he wrote copiously in Dutch on theology, art, politics, education, and a host of other topics, only a few of his writings are available in English translations. The most comprehensive statement of his position in English is to be found in the Stone Lectures, which were delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898 and are published under the title Lectures on Calvinism. This article will consist of a brief exposition of Kuyper’s views as set out in these lectures.

Calvinism as a Worldview

For Kuyper, Calvinism is “a theory of ontology, of ethics, of social happiness, and of human liberty, all derived from God” (p. 15). Thus, Kuyper saw Calvinism, not merely as a system of doctrine, but a comprehensive worldview. In its essence, the heart of Calvinism (and any other worldview) revolves around three fundamental relationships: “(1) our relation to God; (2) our relation to men; and (3) our relation to the world” (p. 19). As example of this interpretation, Kuyper argues that Paganism is a distinct worldview that worships god in the creature. This worship results in a distortion of man’s other relationships by allowing some men to become demi-gods and thus creating caste systems in society. At the same time, too high an estimate is placed on the idea of nature, which leads to a deification of the world. Kuyper offers similar interpretations of Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Modernism – all of which he contrasts with Calvinism. It is in Calvinism alone, he argues, that one can find the proper balance between these vital relationships.

According to Kuyper’s understanding of Calvinism, God enters into immediate fellowship with mankind. So, according to this doctrine, our entire human life is placed immediately before God, ensuring the equality of all men before God and with each other (p. 27). The world itself is to be honored not because it is divine, but because it is a divine creation – the handiwork of God. Practically, this means for the Christian that “the curse should no longer rest upon the world itself, but upon that which is sinful in it, and instead of monastic flight from the world the duty is now emphasized of serving God in the world, in every position of life” (p. 31).

The third lecture in the series is entitled Calvinism and Politics. Here we find a brief, but dense outline of Kuyper’s political theory distilled from his great work, Ons Programme (Our Program, 1878). He argues that the foundational principle for Calvinistic public theology is “the Sovereignty of the Triune God over the whole Cosmos” (p. 99). From this statement, he deduces three realms of sovereignty which he calls “spheres”: the State, Society and the Church. In this way he speaks about his political principle as the application of the principle of “sphere sovereignty” to politics (p. 116).

The Sphere of the State

The first application of this notion of sphere sovereignty is to the State, which seems to refer to the civil government. Kuyper sums up Calvinistic political thought in three theses:

  1. God only – and never any creature – is possessed of sovereign rights, in the destiny of the nations, because God alone created them, maintains them by His Almighty power, and rules them by His ordinances.
  2. Sin has, in the realm of politics, broken down the direct government of God, and therefore the exercise of authority, for the purpose of government has subsequently been invested in men, as a mechanical remedy.
  3. In whatever form this authority may reveal itself, man never possesses power over his fellow man in any way than by an authority which descends upon him from the majesty of God.

Kuyper argues that mankind is organically related by blood so that one humanity exists throughout all time. However, because of sin and the Fall, mankind’s original unity has been fractured, and political life has become a necessity. If the fall did not exist, there would have been no need for the establishment of the structures of the State. Rather, all men would be governed through family relationships. Thus politics and the State are unnatural developments in human history – the State being a mechanical structure imposed upon the natural organic relationships that bind men together. “God has instituted magistrates, by reason of sin” (p. 102). Therefore, from the viewpoint of God’s original creation, the State ought not to exist, but in the light of the Fall, it must exist to restrain evil and make life in a fallen world tolerable – a view reminiscent of Augustine’s Two Cities.

In arguing for his third thesis, Kuyper does not believe that any one form of government is in itself right for all times and places. Rather, the form that government takes is bound up with changes in historical and social circumstances, which is a position he traces back to Augustine. Christians are to seek godly government without demanding a set form. In saying this, Kuyper rejects the idea of a theocracy, which he argues was restricted to ancient Israel.

The Sphere of Society

Building on this foundation, Kuyper goes on to discuss the sphere of society. Society, he declares, is not one whole, but a number of diverse parts which includes the family, business, science, the arts, and etc.. In particular, Kuyper divides the social sphere into four main groups:

  1. the sphere of social relationships where individuals meet and interact with each other;
  2. the corporate sphere, which includes all groupings of men in a corporate sense such as universities, trade unions, employers, organizations, companies, etc;
  3. the domestic sphere, which deals with family, marriage, education, and personal property; and
  4. the communal sphere, which includes all groupings of men in communal relationships such as streets, villages, towns, cities, etc.

Each part of these spheres, Kuyper argues, has “sovereignty in the individual social spheres and these different developments of social life have nothing above themselves but God, and the State cannot intrude here” (p. 116). In society “the chief aim of all human effort remains what it was by virtue of our creation and before the fall – namely, domination over nature” (p. 117).

By contrast to this view of society as a natural, organic institution, government is a mechanical device, which is set over peoples. Its essential characteristic is its power over life and death, which ought to be exercised in the administration of justice. This has a twofold application: 1) to maintain internal justice; 2) to care for the people as a unit at home and abroad. However, since government is mechanically imposed upon the organic spheres of society, friction occurs between different social areas and the government. Kuyper says “the government is always inclined with its mechanical authority to invade social life, to subject it and mechanically to arrange it” (p. 120). At the same time, Kuyper argues that the various social spheres will endeavor to throw off all restraints of government. Thus men will be continually faced with the twin dangers of statism and anarchy. But Calvinism, Kuyper maintains, avoids these extremes by insisting on the sovereignty of God and the rightfulness of a plurality of social spheres “under the law”, which is maintained by the government (p. 121).

Thus, in relation to the social sphere, the State itself has three duties to perform. They are: 1) to draw a boundary between the different social spheres to avoid social conflict. Thus, there is a boundary between the domestic and the corporate life of man. For example, the worker should never be misused by his employer in such a way as to deprive him of a home life or private interest, because such a development would mean that the corporate sphere has illegitimately invaded the domestic sphere; 2) to defend individuals and weak elements within each sphere; 3) to coerce all the separate spheres of society to support the State and uphold its legitimate functions. Thus, each sphere has an obligation to render whatever dues necessary for the maintenance of the overall unity of society as protected by the State (p. 124-125).

The Sphere of the Church and the Individual

Kuyper’s final sphere is the sphere of the Church. While admitting that a divided church presents many problems, he believes that implicit in the doctrine of the liberty of conscience is the ideal of a free church in a free society – hence, the motto “a free Church for a free State”. While acknowledging the benefits of a genuine unity between churches, Kuyper argues that the government must suspend judgment in this area and allow divisions to exist amongst Christians because “the government lacks the data of judgment and would infringe” on the sovereignty of the Church (p. 136). He concludes from this that while extreme forms of church order are to be avoided, allowances must be made for historic and cultural differences between denominations.

Kuyper concludes with a short section on the “sovereignty of the individual person” in which he argues that “conscience is never subject to man but always and ever to God Almighty” (p. 139). This argument leads him to declare that “liberty of speech and liberty of worship” (p. 141) are essential in a just society. Yet, like John Stuart Mill, Kuyper seeks to limit such liberty to “mature men”, and doubts that “backward people” can be granted such liberty. In this, as in all his arguments, Kuyper’s overall aim is to enable “every man to serve God according to his own conviction and the dictates of his own heart” (p. 142).

Concluding Thoughts

Kuyper’s discussion of sphere sovereignty has a number of similarities with Luther’s Two Kingdoms model of public theology, but there are some important differences. Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty deals with different areas into which human life under Christ’s lordship are to be divided; they do not designate the eschatological distinction between this age and the age to come, which is central to the doctrine of two kingdoms. Thus, the concept of sphere sovereignty should be interpreted as a sociological concept that may be consistent with, but different from the two kingdoms doctrine. The two kingdoms model not only represents two spheres (because they denote two governments), but they also denote two overlapping ages.

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In the next article, we will develop these points in more detail and examine how Kuyper (and many current neo-Kuyperians) grounded his understanding of public theology based on an emphasis on creation-fall-redemption and the relationship between grace and nature.